What Biased Journalism Looks Like (The Shortcomings of Narrative)

Ed, over at Gin and Tacos, describes a story about public assistance in New York City that first ran in The Detroit News and was then picked up by Huffington Post:

What doesn’t this quote have? It tells you she’s black (“Shaniqua lives in the Bronx…”), that she’s an unwed mother, that her boyfriend is unemployed, and she’s on what people who like to bitch about this sort of thing generically call “welfare.” Best of all, she’s poor and she says she has cable TV. See? SEE? This is something everyone can enjoy; right wingers get to fly into a pant shitting rage about how the money they work SO HARD for (never too hard to prevent them from commenting on this story on Facebook at work) is going to Welfare Queens to buy cable TV and twerking and Big Screen TVs and the hip-hop music. Centrists and the more patronizing left wing types get to enter Paternalism Mode to explain that we need to teach The Poors to make better choices with their money.

This is how the reporting is biased (boldface mine):

How many people do you think the writer(s) interviewed? How many people do you think they could have interviewed? That is, what is the population of New York City fast food workers? If that group isn’t 500,000 strong I’d be shocked. How many of them did they have to interview until they found Shaniqua Davis, unwed single mom of the Bronx, who is on public assistance but tells the reporter that she has cable TV?

This. This is biased journalism. This is cherry-picking a quote out of the sea of possible interviewees and quotes to make an ideological point. As a journalist, you don’t go into a laundry list of what someone spends their monthly paychecks on unless you’re grinding an ideological ax. You don’t accidentally choose a subject for your story that fits the prejudices and caricatures in the minds of newspapers’ target demographic (white people with disposable income) so cleanly. The story may be about the fast food strike, ostensibly, but 90% of readers are going to take exactly one thing away from this story: Here we go again, more black inner city single moms looking for more handouts to support their Cadillac lifestyles.

Statistics can be bloodless and too many pundits, especially the technobrat ones, forget what the numbers mean. But narratives, while engrossing, can be incredibly misleading.

And the congregation responds: This is yet another reason why we can’t have nice things.

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